From Hatred to Admiration
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Bo, describes the mighty blows that Hashem rained down on Paraoh because of his recalcitrance in obeying the commands of Hashem. However, on various occasions when he seemed about to crack under the severity of the suffering, somehow at the very last moment the tyrant refused to yield. Except, of course, when it came to the final Makkah (plague), the slaying of the firstborn. This was so fearsome that a loud cry of panic engulfed the land, enveloping the King, whose own eldest son was included among the smitten.
The great and mighty King could not withstand the terror to which he was subjected and summoned Moshe to round up his People and leave immediately for their wilderness rendezvous with their G-d. And all of Moshe’s conditions would be honored. This was absolute and unconditional surrender. Let the example of Paraoh be a lesson to all would-be dictators and enslavers of man; there is no way you can emerge triumphant if you have chosen to wage war against the Creator of the Universe.
There was another seemingly miraculous event that occurred as the Jews prepared for exit from Egypt. In communicating the advent of the final plague, Hashem said to Moshe, “Please speak in the ears of the people, that each man may ask from his friend and each woman from her friend articles of silver and gold” (Shemot 11:2). The purpose of this instruction was that through it, Hashem’s promise to Avraham that when his descendants departed the foreign land, they would do so with great wealth would be fulfilled. The Gentile friends and neighbors of the Jews would be motivated by a spirit of favor and generosity to lavish their finest clothing and jewelry on the former slaves.
At first glance, this appears incomprehensible and would seem to constitute a great miracle on a par with the other “signs and wonders” that Moshe performed in Mitzrayim. We must ask, why did Hashem decide to convey great bounty to the Jews in this roundabout manner? Had he instructed Moshe to order Paraoh to pay a sizable indemnity from the Egyptian treasury to compensate the Jews for their stolen labor, Paraoh would have complied under the pressure of Makkat Bechorot (plague of the firstborn). However, Hashem wanted the Jews to request the goods from their Egyptian acquaintances personally. What was the importance of that?
It seems to me that the reason was psychological. The monetary plunder of their labor was not the sole harm rendered to the Jews. Of much greater significance was the blow to their ego and sense of human dignity. The slavery experience could leave a permanent feeling of insecurity and worthlessness, which could prevent a person from leading a creative and meaningful life.
Hashem wanted the Jews to be restored to a sense of healthy self-worth and this would come about through the admiration of the Egyptians, their former masters who would, bountifully, provide them with their finest apparel and accessories. Only by personally confronting the Egyptians would the Jews experience the newfound respect and awe with which they were regarded.
At the same time, we must ask, how did it come about that the Egyptian’s attitude to the Jews had become so favorable that they willingly lavished on them their most cherished (and personal) possessions? The Torah provides a hint as to how this happened. “And Hashem placed the favor of the People in the eyes of the Egyptians; also, the man Moshe was very great in the eyes of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Paraoh, and in the eyes of the people” (Shemot 11:3).
We see from here that very deeply ingrained prejudices can be revised and even transformed. Indeed, an attitude of disparagement can be converted to one of great admiration. The people who had looked down upon the Jews now considered it an honor if they would accept their gifts. But can we trace the psychological process by which this was accomplished?
Most ordinary people unquestioningly accept the basic morality of the society into which they are born. For example, there was a time when slavery was not considered abhorrent in America. Even highly esteemed people who were otherwise regarded as true champions of human freedom were at peace with it. Rare is the individual who subjects all the ethical premises of his homeland to a critical examination.
This enables us to appreciate the uniqueness of Moshe. He was raised in the royal palace and subjected to its philosophical outlook on contemporary issues but endeavored to investigate the system of slavery which was a basic component of the Egyptian economic and social structure. He uncovered its wickedness and rose against it. Not only that, but he chose to identify with his downtrodden brethren, even though it cost him his special place within the societal establishment.
But this was not the approach of the ordinary Egyptian. He had no reason to question the wisdom of Paraoh who had asserted that the Jews posed a danger and who would very likely join with an enemy that waged war against Egypt. He most probably went along with the mistreatment of the Jews as it provided everyone with a cheap and readily available source of labor.
But things began to change with the advent of Moshe and the plagues. Suddenly there were consequences to be had for the enslavement of the Jews. The conversion of all the water sources of Egypt into blood was a traumatic event. When people wanted water, they had to dig deeply in order to find some. Moreover, the idea that the Nile which hitherto had been a source of life and prosperity, had now become an enemy which brought suffering and shook people to their core.
With time, matters got worse, and people wanted to know what Egypt was being punished for. They were informed about the negotiations between Paraoh and Moshe, which had snagged over the demand to allow the slave workforce a brief furlough to worship their G-d. Slowly, under the pressure of the Makkot (plagues), public opinion began to sway in support of the Jews. Suffering has a way of clarifying one’s thinking. The Egyptians reacquainted themselves with the true history of the Jews. Their ancestor, Joseph, had saved the country in the time of the famine. The rest of the family had come in at the request of Paraoh, and they had always been loyal. In fact, it was they who had built the cities of Pitom and Ramseis.
At a certain point in time the general feeling emerged that the Jews were a creative and loyal people and Egypt had sinned grievously in afflicting them. Pharaoh could not prevent the truth from asserting itself. Extreme travail awakens the mind and stimulates great clarity of thought. The Egyptians came to the realization that they had sinned terribly against innocent people, whose virtues now aroused enormous respect and admiration. The Egyptians suddenly had great regard for the Hebrews and their leader Moshe and wanted to express that with demonstrations of appreciation.
Thus, when the Jews came knocking and asking for clothing and jewelry, they were overwhelmed with a desire to give very generously. In describing the reaction of the Egyptians to the request of the Jews, the verse states; (Exodus 12:36) “Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them–so they emptied Egypt.” Rashi comments: “Even that which the Israelites did not ask of the Egyptians, they would give to them. You say that you want one? Take two and go.”
What happened in Egypt was that an entire nation recognized that it had been intentionally misled by its leaders into vilifying an innocent People. They now abandoned the official falsehoods and opted for the truth. It is important to note that the phenomenon of people rejecting inherited untruths and embracing the correct view will play a significant role in the redemption of the Jews and all mankind.
When the Mashiach appears and accomplishes the monumental tasks of defeating all the Jew’s enemies, bringing the entire nation to a proper and full observance of Torah, overseeing the return of the exiles, and, finally, building the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in its place the entire world will acknowledge that he is the genuine authentic Messiah whose advent all the prophets predicted.
In the words of the Rambam; (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 11:4) “When the true Messianic King will arise and prove successful, his position becoming exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors bequeathed them a false heritage and that their prophets and forefathers caused them to err.”
When the world recognizes the terrible crime of anti-Semitism and discovers the true virtues of the Jews and their Torah, the ultimate redemption of mankind will ensue. May it happen quickly and in our time.